I was born and raised in DeKalb, Illinois, home of barbed wire and some of the richest soil in the whole world. It’s a farming community and small city known for the Flying Ear of Corn logo of DeKalb Ag, the foremost research and development center for genetically modified crops in the country, now owned by the giant corporation Monsanto, producing corn with “Strong Roots, Stalks and Yields.” It’s also famous as the birthplace of Cindy Crawford.
And now, it’s infamous DeKalb, Illinois, the latest mass campus shooting site. As I write, people are grieving wildly, pulled over the brink into the netherworld. Young lives choked off by buckshot and bullets, and a lot of people are again asking why. The usual ghoulish cottage industry of questioners and answerers has descended. I sit here in Berlin, where I have lived for years, as far from DeKalb as worlds can get, but I am back in DeKalb now. Back in that small, unplanned unlovely town where my father taught poetry at Northern Illinois University all his working life, after arriving there, a young man educated on the GI Bill, from his hometown, Chicago (60 miles to the east), with his Londoner wife. And now I am feeling a strange painful nostalgia for a town I fled from, along with sadness and fury.
I know that blood-soaked campus well, a stomping ground for teens like me in the late ’70s with nothing to do and nowhere to go. There’s no denying that NIU is an ugly school, a hodgepodge of eyesore buildings spread across mostly treeless pathways and parking lots. And it’s only gotten uglier as the years have passed. Fewer fields, more office blocks. But unlike some bloggers out there, I don’t think the dreary commuter campus built up on cornfields set Steven K. off on his rampage. We grow up among the fields and the flatness and there’s nothing to do. That’s what we know. It can get you down, all right. By the time I was born, the trains that came through town didn’t stop there anymore. But their constant music and rush scores my childhood and early youth. Trains so regularly brought movement to a standstill that the pause was like the pause of your own breath. You stop still while the train passes. That’s just what you do.
I grew up happily in DeKalb, Illinois. Like the killer, Steven K., I grew up on a tree-lined street, mine on the south side of town. There was a big, old tree in front of the house and another behind it. The simple, frame house was covered in asbestos siding, but in those days no one knew it. We had a yard, and the alleyway behind the house, lined with flowering bushes, led me like an enchanted pathway to my little girl gang and our adventures, which were colored by seasons—snow forts, leaf piles, summers smoking found cigarette butts and skateboarding, riding bikes and swimming in the local pool in the local park. And the alleyway brought me home to the warmth of my mother, a big city girl dying a thousand deaths trapped in that town. I didn’t know this, of course. I knew parades and little plays and horror houses we created as kids in our garages. And our dawdling walks downtown to McDonalds for fries and 31 Flavors for cones and the local library—as beautiful a building as any in the country, and one of less-than-a-handful the town didn’t tear down. And Haish school, now torn down, the old red brick building with its “spinster” teachers who taught me to love reading. And the many churches of all denominations. Churches with prayers now hovering like trapped doves in the rafters for the victims of the shootings.
My friends were the children of workers at General Electric, Wurlitzer (sending music out into far-off corners of the world), Del Monte Cannery (with its Mexican workers bringing an other-world music to the outskirts of town)—most of these plants long gone. Some of the parents were in agribusiness or were farmers, some taught at the college. A lot of kids, like my brother, spent at least one summer “detasseling” corn at the cannery, though I never did. It was a rite of passage marked by deeply burned skin caked with dirt. As a child, I learned to shoplift on Lincoln Highway, our main street, at Woolworth’s and Walgreen’s. At Ralph’s newspaper store, we ogled porno magazines hidden in Archie comics while Ralph sold snuff movies and ammunition from the back of the shop.
How often I walked up the strip mall highway past the Elks Club, Jo-Ann Fabrics, and the fast food chains to “The Pond”—a small murky brown lake dotted with trees that mark the entrance to the campus grounds from the main highway. Or later, drove recklessly to meet friends at the off-campus diner, The Junction, a lasting DeKalb institution, where a bran muffin covers an entire plate and is soaked in butter.
I live in Berlin but DeKalb is in my DNA. It fed me sweet corn and later vodka and Boone’s Farm Apple Wine and drugs—taken as I sped down those country roads past corn fields at 90 miles an hour. Rooting on the “Barbs” team as a member of the middle school cheerleading squad (graduating to pom-pom girl in high school), I learned something about being popular and the cost of not fitting in, another cause attributed to mass murder. I had dirty hair and nominal boyfriends, and inwardly was something of a loner. And I was determined to get out as soon as possible and did so at sixteen. I don’t know what would have happened if I’d stayed. I think I would have died in a car wreck, but that’s just guessing. So many did.
The influence of the big state commuter school wafted in on the town’s people and their ways. But hardly. You can’t even call DeKalb a college town, in the conventional sense. NIU is a campus of kids who go home on weekends as well as holidays—home to cities and suburbs, mainly. And you can’t blame them. Later, I’d come home from New York City, holidays and summers, and find utter peace there—sanity and respite and even salvation in its modesty, its sheer lack of ambition. A plain town without expectations where a little girl could roam the streets blissfully, pulling dogwood flowers from alleyways as her mother called out to her from the back steps to get home for supper.
One thing I never felt there was fear, I am quite sure of that. I didn’t know it existed.
I want to share this DeKalb with you, DeKalb before the slaughter.
Game violence, the perversion of fame, middle-class despair, the new dependency on meds. Yes, they all play a part in what DeKalb has now become. But it’s the guns that are manifesting this new death cult with mayhem. In other troubled regions, suicide bombers strap their weapons on. We drive to Tony’s Gun Shop or order online. Hoist a shotgun on to the shoulder and take aim. Students, shoppers, children, workers—all drop like deer or big game.
I want to beg you to join any movement out there, to join in demanding—from the politicians who want our votes, and from any communities in which we find ourselves—the expulsion of the Second Amendment from our Constitution and the dissolution of the NRA, which is busy filling our politicians and candidates’ coffers with blood money. Before your town, like my DeKalb, becomes the next to be shot through with infamy.
No more half-way measures. No more debates and examinations and prayers. We need that kind of guts. The Second Amendment provides no safety or self-defense. It’s killing us off.
Lydia Stryk is the author of over a dozen plays including Monte Carlo, The House of Lily, The Glamour House, American Tet, and An Accident produced at, among others, Denver Center Theatre, Steppenwolf Theatre Company, Victory Gardens, the Contemporary American Theatre Festival, Magic Theatre, and in Germany at Schauspiel Essen, Theaterhaus Stuttgart and the English Theater Berlin. She lives between Berlin and New York. www.lydiastryk.com.